Why is fruit colour so variable? Phylogenetic analyses reveal relationships between fruit-colour evolution, biogeography and diversification

Lu Lu, Peter W. Fritsch, Nicholas J. Matzke, Hong Wang, Kathleen A. Kron, De Zhu Li, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Aim: Are different fruit colours related to large-scale patterns of dispersal, distribution and diversification? Here, we investigate this question for the first time, using phylogenetic approaches in the tribe Gaultherieae (Ericaceae). We test relationships between fruit colour and (a) biogeographic dispersal, (b) elevational and latitudinal species distributions and (c) rates of diversification. Location: Global. Time period: Recent to 30 million years ago. Major taxa studied: The plant tribe Gaultherieae in the family Ericaceae (blueberries and relatives). Methods: We estimated a new time-calibrated phylogeny for Gaultherieae. Data on fruit colours and geographic distributions for each species were compiled from published sources and field observations. Using phylogenetic methods, we estimated major dispersal events across the tree and the most likely fruit colour associated with each dispersal event, and tested whether dispersal between major biogeographic regions was equally likely for different fruit colours, and whether dispersal distances were larger for certain colours. We then tested the relationships between fruit colours and geographic variables (latitude, elevation) and diversification rates. Results: Large-scale dispersal events were significantly associated with red-fruited lineages, even though red-fruited species were relatively uncommon. Further, different fruit colours were associated with different elevations and latitudes (e.g. red at lower elevations, violet at lower latitudes, white at higher elevations). Violet colour was related to increased diversification rates, leading to more violet-fruited species globally. Main conclusions: Overall, we show that different fruit colours can significantly impact the large-scale dispersal, distribution and diversification of plant clades. Furthermore, the interplay between biogeography and fruit-colour evolution seems to generate “taxon cycles” in fruit colour that may drive variation in fruit colour over macroevolutionary time-scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)891-903
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2019


  • Ericaceae
  • Gaultherieae
  • biogeography
  • dispersal
  • diversification
  • fruit
  • phylogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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